Stories

Summer heat has struck with an intensity beyond conceivable and the orderliness of the world seems to unravel even further with the starkness of shootings, the ravages of war, and the scouring reality of the Jan. 6 riots. And yet, every life story is wrapped in broad socail and historical contexts. Each unfolds in daily increments of time, sorted by ups and downs that generate a narrative of note to be shared. Cradled within those stories are patterns and pathways, messages and hope. So it matters, inestimably, which stories find resonance in being, which provide the pathway to action, and which motivate us to choose to make a difference in our lives and the lives of others. The truth is that the stories are not simply tracked in TikTok or wating for access on YouTube; they are all around us, mirrors waiting to provide reflections.

There is the young immigrant waiter chatting about his children and his longing for his home country, for the lifestyle and the interactions. There is a vision there, a seriousness about his decisions, an acceptance of his past and an openness to the future. His eyes glow describing his girls and his son, gently recounting conversations about his vision and their resistant responses, the children’s expression of identity. His tenderness reflects the Gospel reading, the depth of what it means to care about others and to realize the extent of that commitment.

There is the older fellow, a stroke survivor struggling still for fuller recovery. He has given hours to training as an emergency first responder, his chance to give back. His story, too, carries all the threads of a powerful narrative, but is accompanied by a modest humility that will never find its way to social media outlets. Such stories are everywhere: the dentist who sacrifices scarce free time for emergencies; the contempative who spends hours listening to the narratives of others; the retiree who seeks out old friends and creates opportunities for new memories. Each is invested in a foundational element of human life: building meaningful relationships. Each has found the practice of caring, of acting for others, is more of gift than obligation; each is embracing the paths that are unfilding and daring to do what the Gospel suggests: putting others first, growing personally and sustaining an abiding openness to learning. In fact, that is what the Gospel suggests.

As the disciples ask to learn to pray, Jesus offers the Lord’s Prayer. For generations, the rhythm of those words provided sustenance and was the bedrock for personal relationships with God. Sometimes, the words themselves can be the object of speech and never find translation into action. The very structure of the New Testament story challenges that; it relies on examples to make the point that actions really matter and responding to the needs of another is esential. All around us, that happens every day; sometimes we have the luxury of being the observer while other times we revel as givers and dare empathy in being receivers. The Lord’s Prayer is the reminder that there is something More waiting to accompany each od us on the magical mystery tour of being human.

There is a fullness to humanity that is not dulled by tchnology or social media, that continually finds new ways to connect and weave the fabric of relationships. Even the intimidating plethora of today’s can be stilled by those moments of simplicity and presence that linger for even a moment in love. Super charged with the hope that represents, fears can find realism and practical responses. Daring to believe means hearing the stories, seeing them, reflecting on the meaning, learning and changing, Ours are lives nestled within circumstances often beyond personal control. Even Jesus coped with the realities of Imperial Rome and still he lived. And so we live among these issues in messy realities, realizing the grace of stories is the actually the reality of presence to another and the chance to grow and change.

Genius of Prayer

This morning, an elderly woman swathed in a flowered marmalade scarf fingered her rosary beads throughout the service. All around her, voices joined in other prayers, like the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. And still, the beads slipped through her aged fingers gliding into the next decades. I began to think about prayer and what it can mean in life. But I lingered first with the dominant secularism in a society so heavily invested in what is nondenominationally described as “wellness” and seems to borrow heavily from the practices which evolved through centuries of religious traditions. There seems a hollowness to it, to the absence of belief in something greater than self while wrangling with the rigors and rewards of being humans. And so I wondered about what it is prayer and practice offered to those human beings of past centuries who dared to try it. Not the big names or the famous writers or even the well-known theologians like Bonaventure: the ordinary people who sat in churches and knelt in mosques and met in synagogues and visited temples. Those people. What did they experience? Why did they believe? Is it true it was because they simply “did not know better” as some claim? Or had they stumbled upon something of genius in prayer?

The practice of prayer in various traditions invites a focus upon something other than self while simultaneously inviting a consideration of personal experience. There is a paradox to it and an element of habit, of ritualism. Laying out the offerings before a Hindu shrine or carefully lighting incense in a Buddhist temple are acts of culture and of faith. Celebrating the Bar Mitzvah and receiving First Holy Communion are acts of traditon and identity…and faith. Imagine, though, that prayer from any tradition, allows the processing of life’s turbulence with a compassionate God, with a non-judgmental partner who willingly accepts whatever is offered: the grief, the burden, the concerns and the joys. There are all sorts of prayer: intercessory prayer, centering prayer, the Rosary and Gospel mediation, examinations of conscience….It is all about connecting with God and self. It is about finding a rhythm to wellness with a sense that there is far more to life than we often imagine.

Prayer means acknowledging that no matter what concern you place on the altar, you are no longer alone in that. Contemplative prayer is a sounding board that creates time to reflect and re-imagine next steps. Prayer is not the mere recitation of words, but the sense that someone is listening, not just hearing you. It can allow you to lay bear the secret of your heart, relaease you fro the confines of self-imposed prisons. The ebb and flow of words themselves can become a pathway to step into a deeper awareness of what is real. And “real” is different for everyone, changes through life, and offers a kind of buffer through the process of living. It is the space where truth can be known, understood and acted upon without fear; it is the also the place where fears can be quelled like angry ocean waves made calm and peaceful. Prayer is confidence in a higher being and requires a confidence in being able to share what is happening in living.

The wealth and diversity of types of prayer are on parade in Christian and Catholic traditions: there is the simplicity of Terese of Liseux and her urging to become the plaything of Jesus and the practicality of Teresa of Avila about becoming the hands and heart of Christ for one another. There is the directness of the Serenity Prayer and the trusting words of the Lord’s Prayer, the poetry of the psalms.

Maybe the key to it all is recognizing that there is a certain genius to prayer: it enables us to connect, to be fully present and to be securely attentive to the whisper of God in life. Quiet, silent prayer helps us listen and helps us speak. Community prayer helps us see more clearly who we are as humans and act together with the sense that each one matters. There is a genius to the idea that prayer is a tool there for the using, something fully open to each of us.

Samaritans

History can be like wandering through the pages of another’s life, finding the secret compatibility of humanity and hope, of tragedies and resilience. And there, embedded in the stories, are the lessons that belong not to the skeletal narrative of an era but to the deep moral lessons that provide tools for the next generation. Listening carefully as stories unfold opens the past to live in the present and build for the future. Those moments speak to the heart of what it means to be the Good Samaritan: to notice and take compassionate action.

In a crowded New York City classroom full of squirming immigrant and first generation third graders, a young religious, encased in an austere black habit and headdress, entered. It was 1919, a year linked inextricably to the first World War. She was just past being a child herself, and tears streamed from her wide eyes. Children crowded around her, begged to know what happened. She gathered them and she spoke the words they carried through decades. “My mother died, and I did get the chance to tell her I loved her. Remember to tell the ones you love.. ” A century later, in recounting the story, a family recalls that morning, that lesson. Her lesson was in her living, her gift in their receving and the way so many passed the story down to their own children. At the edge of violent world conflict, the very simple expression of suffering created an enduring legacy.

Decades later, nestled near the East River and the Throgs Neck Bridge, a parochial elementary school housed hundreds of local students. The 1960’s were volatile, full of domestic protests and polarities, riots and violence to say nothing of the agonies of the Vietnam War. But here, students used readers full of short stories appropriate to each reading and grade level. And within them, lessons and values ensconced on every page. There were the stories about service, about children choosing to help theirparents, to be kind to each other, to support new arrivals and to reach out to one another. Respect for self and one another seeped from every page. Remarkably, at reunions and gatherings, aging adults smiled and recalled those messages, the applications and the way the stories spoke to later decision making and life experience: so many became public servants, nurses, teachers, lawyers. They noticed, remembered and took action.

Good Samaritans are hidden in the pages of history, but theirs are the stories that offer meat to the bones of chronology of any time period. part of the secret is to become the story teller. It is about rememebrring the goodness, the kindness observed in one another and the lessons learned. Today, in the scramble to become better than who we are, the simplicity of stories and the attentiveness to strangers can transform ordinary encounters to extraordianry experiences. We have the chance to remember the past, to notice what is happening and to take kind and life-giving action with quiet resolution. We have the chance to redefine what history will chronicla if we dare begin to live the story that we would want to be remembered. Humanity and hope have the chance to nestle together in our time too. The Gospel of the Good Samaritan shows the power ot story itself and shows that each of us can play a major role in the lives of others if we dare notice and dare take action.

Time and Wine

There is quiet synchroncity to the rhythm of summer vacation days, distance drawn from the drama of daily events that somehow releases a comfort and calm. Even monastics, living such as they are in schedules that demand attentiveness to each increment of time, benefit from “vacation days”, days apart from the usual. And while I was quite surprised when I first heard that from a Poor Clare, I realized she was opening the door to a deeper understanding about time, what it means in our lives and how we live it.

There is an ardent temptation among us to cling to what was known, to a past that was relevant in its own present. And so we hold on to images and customs, stereotypes and patterns of thinking without much consideration of why it was like that and with little conversation about purpose or impact. And there is the opposite inclintion as well: to embrace what is new simply because it is new and so must be better than what was. There too, the shift can come without discussion about purpose or perspective, significance and meaning. Living fully, I learned from the Poor Clares, is choosing to consider time, past and present and beyond, with a real attentiveness, a sense of life and being that intimates each next step with awe and appreciation. Time, after all, is a gift to be relished and shared with the world around us and the persons in that world.

Change occurs over time; it is a force within each of us, sculpting wrinkles and weilding memories and deliberately altering days. Change surrounds us; it inhabits every day, every encounter and every institution and every person. How we deal with that change matters, impacts self and others. The Gospel of Matthew dances with this very human theme of change and time. The passage begins with the questions about fasting but ends with the often quoted, “…they pour new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.” Those words can be fastened to a literal image of ancient times; they can apply, too, to the newness each generation brings to their shaping of the time in which they live. But, too, the words speak ot the changes each life meets, and the need for each of us to meet that change, newness, and to grow.

The pace is not as important as the process. The immediate impact here is not as important as the long-term effect. There are beginnings and there are endings, and all of it is happening simultaneously, somewhere and somehow, and we are the witnesses to the wonder of all that if we choose to be. Time allows us the privilege of being and opportunities to be. Ironically, Poor Clares make definitive choices about purpose and lifestyle; for them, there is a fluidity to time, to the process of change and attentiveness to growth. There is new wine every morning, and new wineskins at the ready. Maybe that is a lesson from the contemplative world to those of us who live outside it: that time is a treasure, choices are gifts, and options are always there.

Fr. Nick

In the life of a parish, where layers of tradition are tiered with transition and change, there are moments of grace alog with all the challenges, and there are persons of wisdom as well. Fr. Nick is one of those rare persons whose humanity, faith, and reason are aligned with dignity, respect and purpose. In a church of change, diminishment and growth, he manages to be a rudder and a light all at once. Most importantly, his embrace of difference, understanding of perspectives and genuine kindness makes life easier for others. In his own battles, his openness and honesty were stirring reminders of human fragility and human strength. There were times when he sat to share the liturgy, when he used a chair to deliver the homily, when he sat in the lobby of the church to greet parishoners at the end of Mass. Maybe the times which were revealing of his character was the awe of his assistant conveyed in countless anecdotes that inevitably drew laughter from the congregation. That younger priest regularly shared, quite humbly, what he was learning from his mentor. It all shows that the often predicted demise of Catholicism is not as imminent as some predict. Instead, there are Catholics out there willing to take that one small step at a time to bring comfort to a suffering world. You know who you are…thanks to each of you and special thanks to Fr. Nick!

Fully human

American culture is reeling: Roe v. Wade has been overturned, gun violence has become a pervasive news item, the war in Ukraine is cranking up shortages and egging on inflation. History has a messge for us in all of this: Americans are as we have always been: restless, contentious, angry and outspoken. There is fervor and ferocity in the ways we are grappling with the polarities among us, and there is an urgency about perceptions, impatience with process and conflicting purposes and perspectives. As a Catholic, living through this and through this tumultuous time period for the insitutional church and its representatives, there is so much to think about, to consider. After all, St.Irenaeus’ ancient intimation about “fully human, fully alive” resonates with relevance.

To be fully human is to experience the full depth and breadth of our selves: the continuum of emotions, the variegated choices, the inevitable flaws and foibles. It demands the fullness of who we are intellectually, socially, spiritually and emotionally, to live with the sense that who we are matters and what we do, how we do it and when we do it makes a difference for self and others. It means recognizing strengths and weaknesses, and discovering over and over that options do exist and choosing wisely actually can happen. Most of all, it means allowing acknowledgement that we are all only human and created of those same fibers of emotion, spirit, heart and intellect. We all live within the frameworks of time and circumstance and struggle to do the best we can with what we have at the moment. To be fully alive, then, is to embrace the wisdom that human experience offers and dare to see with clear vision, to hear less and listen more, to speak with openness and question with a kind curiosity, to touch with tender care and support with trustworthy fortitude.

Facing the floodgates of social change and battling age-old institutional fragilities, to be “fully human, fully alive” is more important than ever. Facing fears, implementing ideas, designing processes and taking steps are viable when we realize that we are called, by virtue of being, to be fully human and fully alive. The two are meant for each of us and all of us; no one is in this alone. We were born for freedom, and the readings for this week point out that we are meant to ¬†serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement,namely,¬†You shall love your neighbor as yourself. In a time quaking with uncertainty and vested in violence, there is also the warning: But if you go on biting and devouring one another,beware that you are not consumed by one another. History captures the stories of those who have been devoured and consumed, made the ultimate sacrifice and suffered the greatest griefs. But there are other threads of history: the triumphs that suggest that the chance to be fully human and fully alive is afforded to each of us. Look around: young mothers pushing baby strollers, fathers fishing with a child, grandparents celebrating new births, mourners finding comfort in the arms of friends, new relationships and shared harmonies, avid discussions, intellectual exchanges, tough questioning, defined ideals and wrestling with the real. We are like the generations before us who dared to bring us to this point. It is ours to recognize our freedom, choose to serve and become fully human, and fully alive.

Something greater

Fathers Day, 2022. Juneteenth. Corpus Christi. And from the shadows of memory comes an unsolicited image from the 1980’s. Philadelphia. The arrival of John Paul II to a outdoor crowd of young people clearly conscious of Catholic identity, bursting with enthusiasm for a youthful pope defined by his embrace of faith and challenge. Energizing and energized by the crowd, he floated like a white vision on a distant stage. Holy Father. Forty years later, an older Jesuit wears the same white garments and has held together a church divided by its brokenness and grapples with a world where Catholic identity is neither well defined nor fashionable and so much is questioned. Still, he bears the title and welcomes the foibles of his own humanity, admitting, “Who am I to judge?” and daring others to the same humility. In a year with a curious intersection of holidays, the images bear a startling relevance in a world of transition.

The role of fathers has changed over the centuries and our understanding of that, our expectations, have also evolved. Shifts in social roles, the success of the feminist movement and emerging economic realities demanded more of persons and new styles of parenting. Fathers, each one shaped with all the features and flaws of every human being, strive to do the impossible in meeting the needs of children, partners, family. There are no handbooks to adequately prepare a person for the role: it simply happens and then unfolds over lifetimes with chains of challenges, wrong turns, victorious laps and unimaginable situations. Even the best of fathers have feet of clay, and the realization of that actually enables their offspring to see the person each father truly is and gradually absorb the wisdom gathered over the decades of his experience. It takes time and generosity to learn to know the person a father is, to see more than the role he plays as parent. How he feels about it, why he does it, what he believes, all that matters, too. There is always room for new understandings of each other, for deeper appreciation, which leads to the celebration of Juneteenth.

Junetenth highlights the ending of an era begun long before. The celebration of it marks a deeper understanding of the conflict that tore the states apart and confounded earlier generations. The celebration evolved to what it is today in a clear sign of a deeper understanding of a collective past, a willingness to revisit the past and highlight a strength in the narrative. It brings together the past and provides a path for the future, in the same way a father carries his past and enters the future with the birth of offspring. Celebrating it now as a national holiday marks a new consciousness, a deeper understanding of the complexity that has brought us to this moment in time. It means learning to see the past differently with grace and openness and embracing the stroy as it evolves. In a sense, it seems closely connected to Corpus Christi, the feast of the Eucharist, the reminder that we are actually all part of something and someone greater than ourselves.

Corpus Christi, to me, is the invitation to transcend differences and judgments, and to see the essentail sameness, the humanity and the suffering and the joys that are part of human life….every human life. It is about looking beyond the parameters of the tiny worlds we often choose to live in day to day. It is about seeing and drawing in deep gulps of the bigger pictures and contexts we each exist in. It is about learning to love as a father is meant to love, without condition, and knowing God’s help is needed for that to happen.

Each of the holidays offers so much to think about, if we take the chance. Each invites us to see that there is always more to the story than what we think we know. Each enables us to become part of something greater than ourselves.

Trinity

Just over a year ago, I lost a world I had just discovered. There was a heart and home where belonging and being were one in the same. Without a doubt, it was the gift of a lifetime, transformative, and empowering. In the loss, I learned so much more about it: for the first time, I knew what it was to be recognized, accepted, trusted, known. It was the safest of all spaces: no need to hide or to protect oneself; words were welcome and moments treasured. Most shocking of all, the gift of that world remained in the weeks and months of wicked grieving. Nothing could have surprised me more. It spoke of dimenstions of love I had never even imagined. And now, humbled by learning I had not once suspected, the experience becomes applicable to other circumstances. Today Catholicism celebrates Trinity Sunday, an unbridled explanation of love and the mysterious three persons in one God.

As a child, the simple three leaf clover was the favored explanation. It was later, as a young adult, that I saw the convergence of persons in God with a skepticism. It sounded like 2 persons and one spirit to me, and nothing quite added up. Some explained the Spirit as the dynamism between Father and Son; some saw the Trinity as an unbreakable form, a tripod of perfection. For me, it remained a mystery. It was encountering Poor Clares that some understanding began to develop.

For monastics, the liturgical calendar complements the secular and spills over with meaning, even lodges collective memory firmly against the vicissitudes of daily living in 2022. And so the saints and the holidays are remembered and observed each year by someone, somewhere, and so the faith goes on. Memory is crafted from experience shaped in its sharing and re-telling; the mystery of the Trinity became a facet of collective identity within the church. Memory can be transformative, and Trinity Sunday highlights that. It is a holiday that invites us to see, to make and to nurture connections. For monastics, that made a lot of sense within the life of the community and within personal relationships with God. And for everyone, it makes so very much sense. Trinity Sunday is the reminder that we are not alone in any sense of the word. There is continuity in the love of God from beginning to end, and the movement of the Spirit is as real as the Eucharistic Presence and the Lord’s Prayer “Father”. The power of that is constantly available, present to us, if only we choose to look and see, hear and listen, know and touch. The mystery of it cannot actually be simplified to that four leaf clover, but it can tie to the idea that as humans we are continually learning about love and loss, grief and growth, what life is really all about. Trinity Sunday is the reminder that love is the constancy that may not have been known or initally understood, but is waiting to be recongized, accessed and enjoyed. Trinity Sunday is the reminder that each of us is accepted, known and understood by God who is simply there, waiting for consciousness of His Presence.

Pentecost and Presence

She was a diminutve Poor Clare, a contemplative Franciscan who lived out her adult life within the physical walls of a monastery. In her 70’s, with snow white hair cropped close and penetrating brown eyes that thoroughly embraced the world, she had a soft Brooklyn accent, a quick laugh, and a keen sensitivity to others. She was the first to challenge me to think about the presence of the Spirit in the world, and she did it with a keen consistency that allowed me to consider the idea that beyond all our human differences, there is a unifying feature. She would say, “if you look long enough, you will always find the common ground…and that is the work of the Spirit.” And she never hesitated to note that perhaps further looking was required, especially for herself. But it was her intense belief that the animation of the world, the source of all synchronicity, was the Spirit. Pentecost, in her world, was the feast that opened that possibility for all. For her, Pentecost was the promise of unending Presence just as surely as the Eucharist was the promise fo unending connection. The very thought could light up her whole being and energize the most passive of moments. And she confided, over truly awful coffee in the confines of a tiny parlor for visitors, that it was that very insight that was so closely connected to her monastic life and to her ability to live within the walls with the sameness of their lives: the same women, the same schdule, the same meals, the same limits and the same hopes, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. It was something bigger than themselves that made each of their unique personalities into a glowing whole of a community. Never one to deny the truth, she was simply realistic about strengths and weaknesses, her own and everyone else’s. But it was the work of every day to make the community work, to be part of this greater whole and to enable each one, every one, to become better. And it was, to her, the movement of the Spirit that made it all possible. It has not occurred to me until recently that her monastic microcosm carries great lessons for the wider world.

In a world where there are so many deep needs and unpredented wants, that tiny Poor Clare stands in her plain brown dress with the simple cord at her waist in silence with a profound message. Life is work, and building community is a significant challenge. it is not all about the wants of one person or another, but about a whole that is greater than self. It is about knowing self and daring to really know others, to be prepared to observe, to listen, to accept and to challenge, and most importantly, to be attuned to the right time for each. The idea that there is something beyond self that can lead, unite, and animate means trusting in the promise of Pentecost and learning to listen to the whisper of God’s voice in every venue of the created world. It is about standing up and speaking out as well as sitting down and listening carefully, gently, with an open heart. And most of all, it is about the ability to discern the difference between the two.

That they may be one

The handprint of a ten year old is small, smooth to perfection, and large enough to wrap neatly into larger hands, to be held and guided, nurtured and aligned. Uvlade has resurrected the heartbreak of Sandy Hook and re-opened debates about gun control, safety in schools and the red flags of mental illness. The rhetoric can mask grief and defy fear; after all the incdents of the past ten years, it has not resoluted in effective action. It has not been able to answer the question, “What would work to solve this problem?” or even “What are the causes of this? What is actually happening? How can we change this trajectory?”

A coherent clarity would be more than welcome, and heated debates over the NRA nd gun control suggest that. It is as if resolving the contentious issue would put an end to the tragedies America is enduring. The circumstances are extraordinarily complex and acknowledging that may open unexpected solutions. First, there is the rapid social and technological change that has shaped this millennium and all traversing through it. Social shifts have dislodged a reverence for spaces once considered sacred: churches and schools. Others, once defined by their purpose, have not been inviolate. Movie theaters, concerts and supermarkets,polics stations have become stages for violence rather than venues for entertainment and leisure, sustenance and stability. The shifts reflect the skeptcism of loss of confidence in social insitituions. Language has known shifts as well: once private terms hemming emotions have blasted into routine daily usage. Accompanying the onslaught of acronyms and emoticans has generated divisions between age and interst groups. Vocabulary has grown powerful; even the word “carnage” has crept into the vernacular as mass shootings become more frequent.

These changes have occurred in a time when technology has granted new voice to the marginalized and is postioned to democratize American society. Individuals possess a formerly unattainable measure of influence and/or notoriety. Split seconds separate events from international publicity and highlight the intensity of news events that years ago were buried in newspapers. Spiking anxiety and stress heighten grief and drama, spill into and shape reactions, increase tensions, furstrations and fury.

There are heartbreaking searches for answers. The answers have remained cruelly elusive; perhaps they are hidden in the whole of who we actually are and what is actually happening within lives and culture. There are moments to take that step back, to breath deeply, and to realize that each of us has such a need for the other and others to actually become whole. We need one another. We need to believe in one another, in mutual respect, in the idea that life has real value and thoughtfully living matters. There are those moments when the prayer Jesus uttered, “that they all may be one” , can become real.

The very brevity of life is a keen reminder that time is precious, a commodity and a gift. How we live that time matters. Believing matters. Becoming one matters. It just might make a difference.